Hnau What?: C. S. Lewis on What It Means to be a Person

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What does it mean to be a person? This is one of the central moral questions of our age. Bioethics is particularly engaged with this question. What is human life? When does it begin and end? Does human life have any intrinsic value, dignity, or rights to be protected? Are there any boundaries regarding the manipulation of genetic material, cloning, or embryos? We tend to speak in strong terms about “human rights” and “civil rights” as though there were a secure, generally accepted basis for them to stand on. But is this true? The conversation often seems to ignore the fact that different worldviews lead to widely divergent answers to the question “What is a person?” Most secular modern or post-modern conceptualizations of the nature of personhood are not robust enough to support the notions of human rights and civil rights that we tend to assume.

C. S. Lewis understood well that not all worldviews support the idea of moral obligation. He understood that if persons are simply the chance result of materialist processes in a random and meaningless universe, all bets are off regarding our ability to claim any intrinsic value, dignity, or rights. He also understood that what we call “postmodern” notions of radically subjective and “located” narratives of meaning offer no better hope for preserving the value of persons. He explored these issues many places over the years in books as diverse as Out of the Silent Planet and The Abolition of Man. This paper will survey some of those reflections with a view toward their contemporary implications for ethics and the social sciences.

He is, after all, human

Out of the Silent Planet begins with the shanghaiing of Ransom, the philologist. Out on an extended walking tour, Ransom has sought shelter for the night and has interrupted a kidnapping. Two men had been in the process of taking a mentally retarded country boy with them to Mars as an offering, as they believe, to powerful beings there. Their primary victim gone, Weston and Devine wind up drugging Ransom and taking him instead. We gain some insight into their beliefs about what it means to be a person by the conversation Ransom wakes up to.

Weston, the true believer in science, has been resisting the substitution of Ransom for the boy, primarily because Ransom has some qualities that the boy did not. “‘The boy was ideal,’ said Weston sulkily. ‘Incapable of serving humanity and only too likely to propagate idiocy. He was the sort of boy who in a civilized community would be automatically handed over to a state laboratory for experimental purposes.”

Devine is more utilitarian. The boy was more likely to be missed by Scotland Yard than a professor on a long school holiday walk. He said, “This busybody, on the other hand, will not be missed for months, and even then no one will know where he was when he disappeared. He came alone. He left no address. He has no family. And finally he has poked his nose into the whole affair of his own accord.”

Even yet, Weston has some reluctance, saying, “Well, I confess I don’t like it. He is, after all, human. The boy was really almost a-a preparation. Still, he’s only an individual, and probably a quite useless one. We’re risking our own lives too. In a great cause-”

We see in this little exchange some glimpse of how beliefs affect behavior, how worldviews shape morality. Weston imagined himself to be serving the “great cause” of scientific progress and the evolutionary success of the human gene pool. Actual persons could easily be sacrificed in the service of this “great cause” of abstract humanity, and some persons have more value than others. Devine, brilliant in his own way, but a utilitarian hedonist, takes a much shorter and hard-headed view. The only thing that matters is his personal survival and success, measured by power and prosperity. Persons have no intrinsic value and no rights sustained by moral obligation. When Weston consoles himself with the thought, “I dare say, he would consent if he could be made to understand,” Devine simply replies, “Take his feet and I’ll take his head.”

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